“American Giant:” Theodore Dreiser

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Theodore Dreiser

Theodore Dreiser

Despite a famously ponderous prose style, novelist Theodore Dreiser, born August 27, 1871 in Terre Haute, Indiana, remains one of our most impressive American novelists. The distinguished American critic Irving Howe wrote that Dreiser is “among the American giants, one of the very few American giants we have had.” Although best known for his novels Sister Carrie (1900) and An American Tragedy (1925), Dreiser also created a large body of work that includes other novels, short fiction, essays, and travel books, one of which—A Hoosier Holiday (1916)—is an amusing account of a trip Dreiser made back to Indiana from New York in 1916 in the early days of long-distance auto travel. It’s one of the first “road books.”

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Dreiser grew up in poverty in Indiana. His father was a German Catholic immigrant, his mother an Ohio woman of Mennonite background. Dreiser was one of the youngest in a large family. He had five sisters and four brothers. His older brother Paul later changed his last name, and as “Paul Dresser” became a successful and wealthy composer. Paul Dreiser is best known for composing the famous song “On The Banks of the Wabash, Far Away,” which reflects nostalgia for rural ways and scenes during a time when the U.S. was rapidly developing as an industrial nation.

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Dreiser attended Catholic and later public schools. A sympathetic schoolteacher paid for a year at Indiana University—Dreiser’s only experience with higher education. Dreiser then became a reporter, working for newspapers in Pittsburgh, Chicago, St. Louis, and New York, learning firsthand details of urban life, and witnessing just how cruel and unrelenting the new industrial America could be to society’s most vulnerable people.

Frank Doubleday

Frank Doubleday

Sister Carrie, the story of a woman who wins success on her own terms—as an actress and chorus girl who enjoys relationships with a number of men– was Dreiser’s first novel. Fellow novelist Frank Norris, an editor for Doubleday, liked the work. Dreiser signed a contract for publication while the company’s president, Frank Doubleday, was out of town. Doubleday was furious when he read the book and tried to cancel the deal with Dreiser. But Dreiser stuck to his guns, and the publisher relented. He published the book, but did nothing to get it distributed, reviewed, or advertised. Frank Norris sent out copies for review. Most reviews were hostile.

Novelist--and champion of Theodore Dreiser--Frank Norris.

Novelist–and champion of Theodore Dreiser–Frank Norris.

Dreiser returned to fiction first with Jennie Gerhardt in 1911, another novel about a young woman trying to make her way in society. He next completed The Financier (1912) the story of a business tycoon’s rise. The character Frank Cowperwood was based on Charles T. Yerkes, a railroad financier, and Dreiser continued his story in The Titan (1914). Dreiser followed The Titan with The “Genius” (1915), the story of a midwestern artist. The Financier and The Titan were the first two novels in a trilogy on Cowperwood known as the Trilogy of Desire. Theodore Dreiser completed the last volume of the trilogy—The Stoic—just days before his death in 1945.

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Charles T. Yerkes

Charles T. Yerkes

Dreiser turned his hand to other sorts of writing for a number of years after completing The “Genius” before returning to fiction with An American Tragedy. This is one of Dreiser’s best-known and enduring works, the story of a poor boy desperate to rise in the world who murders his pregnant girlfriend. The novel is based on the true story of Chester Gillette, who murdered his lover Grace Brown in upstate New York while out boating in 1906. Gillette was later executed in the electric chair. An American Tragedy was adapted for the screen as A Place In The Sun with Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift.

Scene from A Place In The Sun.

Scene from A Place In The Sun.

Chester Gillette

Chester Gillette

Grace Brown

Grace Brown

Dreiser turned to writing non-fiction in the years after An American Tragedy. He completed collections of essays and biographical portraits, as well as travel works. He visited the Soviet Union and wrote about that in Dreiser Looks At Russia (1928). Tragic America (1931) is a collection of writing about America in the throes of the Depression.

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Dreiser’s only other novels after An American Tragedy were published posthumously. The Bulwark (1946) is a study of a man and his search for spiritual values. The Stoic, as noted earlier, appeared in 1947.

Dreiser had to deal with the forces of censorship during the early years of his career. Squeamish critics and readers objected to both Sister Carrie and Jennie Gerhardt, but the climate had relaxed by the time he published An American Tragedy. And while there are many dimensions to his work, one of his key themes was the rise of a ruthless and impersonal urban and industrial society that exerts an often crushing force on individuals.

Theodore Dreiser died at the age of 74 in Hollywood, California on December 28, 1945.

 

Patrick Kerin

 

Sources:

Dictionary of Midwestern Literature—Volume One: The Authors. Edited by Philip A. Greasley. Indiana University Press, 2001.

Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature. Edited by George Perkins, Barbara Perkins, Philip Leininger. Harper Collins, 1991.

Recent American Literature: Volume 4. Donald Heiney. Barron’s Educational Series, 1958.

Born August 23, 1868: Edgar Lee Masters

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Edgar Lee Masters

Edgar Lee Masters

Because this blog touches on larger topics—Midwestern literature in general, and to some degree the literature of the upper South and Appalachia—I’ve decided to occasionally venture beyond the geographical boundaries of the Ohio Valley region. Today is such an occasion. August 23 is the birthday of poet, novelist, and biographer Edgar Lee Masters, who was born in 1868 in Garnett, Kansas, but later moved with his family to Illinois. Masters is best known for his book Spoon River Anthology, which is a series of verse epitaphs. The characters in Spoon River speak from beyond the grave about their lives, and the book contains a number of intertwined narratives. Characters comment on each other, or a character mentioned earlier by someone else gives their own account of an event or relationship. Masters grew up in the towns of Petersburg and Lewistown in Illinois, which are not far from the actual Spoon River.

The Spoon River in Illinois.

The Spoon River in Illinois.

Masters became a lawyer in Chicago following some time at Knox College and reading law in his father’s law office. Two important experiences led Masters to compose Spoon River Anthology. Conversations with his mother about the people they knew in small town Illinois helped trigger the book, along with his reading of Selected Epigrams from the Greek Anthology, edited by J.W. Mackail. The Greek Anthology is a collection of epigrams spanning thousands of years of Greek history. Masters found in these compressed poems a model for his brief and poignant accounts of lives, many of them marred by bad marriages, failed love affairs, social pressures and constraints, poverty, illness, and injustice.

Annotated edition of Spoon River Anthology edited by John E. Hallwas. (Photo courtesy of University of Illinois Press).

Annotated edition of Spoon River Anthology edited by John E. Hallwas. (Photo courtesy of University of Illinois Press).

The Spoon River Anthology was a lightning bolt in its time, part of the wave of literature that emerged in the early decades of the twentieth century that exposed the bucolic myths of the rural village and booming small town. It aroused controversy and sold well. Masters published a sequel, The New Spoon River, in 1924. It was less successful, but still has many powerful portraits. I’m reading it right now and feel it has been underrated. At some point down the road I’ll do a short post on the second volume. Spoon River Anthology will get its own treatment next year as 2015 marks the book’s centennial.

Edgar Lee Masters home in Petersburg, Illinois (photo courtesy of PetersburgIL.com).

Edgar Lee Masters home in Petersburg, Illinois (photo courtesy of PetersburgIL.com).

Masters stopped practicing law after thirty years in 1921 to write full-time. He continued to publish verse, along with fiction, plays, and biographical works on Whitman, Twain, Lincoln, and Vachel Lindsay. He also published an interesting autobiography: Across Spoon River: An Autobiography (1936). He never again had the kind of success he experienced with Spoon River Anthology in 1915.

 

Edgar Lee Masters died in 1950.

 

Patrick Kerin

 

Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature, 1991.

 

Spoon River Anthology: An Annotated Edition. Edited with an Introduction and Annotations by John E. Hallwas. University of Illinois Press, 1992.

Louise Erdrich Wins Dayton Literary Peace Prize For Fiction

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Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich

Minnesota author Louise Erdrich has won the 2014 Dayton Literary Peace Prize for fiction. Erdrich, who is of Ojibwa, French, and German ancestry, and a member of the Turtle Creek Chippewa nation in North Dakota, is known for her novels about Native American life. She has also explored themes related to German-American life in the upper midwest. In addition to her novels, Erdrich has written poetry, nonfiction, and children’s books. The author turned this June, and is a past recipient of the National Book Award.

Two of Erdrich’s sisters are writers, and Erdrich also runs a bookstore in Minneapolis called Birchbark Books, which includes a small nonprofit publishing house called Wigwaas Press.

The Dayton Literary Peace Prize honors writers whose works in some way contribute to the advancement of peace, social justice, and cultural understanding.

The Dayton Literary Peace Prize is an offshoot of the historic Dayton peace accords on Bosnia in 1995. The award was originally a peace prize in the early 2000’s, but later organizers changed its focus to honor literature’s power to make a more peaceful world. Each year there is a winner and runner-up in fiction and nonfiction categories, and the Richard C. Holbrooke Award is given to those writers who have created a body of work related to themes of peace and understanding. The award is named after the U.S. official who brokered the famous peace negotiations. Past winners of the Richard Holbrooke Award–originally entitled the “Lifetime Achievement Award’– include Elie Weisel, Studs Terkel, Geraldine Brooks, and Wendell Berry.

Patrick Kerin

Annie Oakley: Little Sure Shot.

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In the “About” section of this blog I mention doing occasional “Beyond The Books” special features concerning historical and cultural topics outside of literature. I’m kicking off that feature today with a quick look at an important Ohioan, whose birthday is today: legendary sharpshooter Annie Oakley, born Phoebe Ann Mosey on August 13, 1860 in Darke County, Ohio.

Many of us know something of Annie Oakley. Her story has been told in numerous books and articles, and was also the subject of one of the great musicals of the 1940s: Annie Get Your Gun.

Annie was born into farm family and knew hardship and poverty. Her father died at the age of 65 when she was only five years old, and Annie and one of her sisters were placed in the Darke County Infirmary, a situation similar to placement in an orphanage. Later Annie was placed with a Preble County farm family who treated her badly. She was with them for two years before returning to her own family at the age of twelve.

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Annie had begun trapping, hunting, and shooting earlier in her childhood. After her return home from being “bound out” to the Preble County family, she was able to provide for her own family by shooting and selling game to local residents, hotels, and restaurants. She was highly sought after since she made clean kills by shooting animals in the head—which spared restaurant managers the embarrassment of patrons picking buckshot out of their food! Annie made enough money to pay off the family mortgage as well.

Her break came when a Cincinnati hotel owner had Annie compete against vaudeville marksman Frank Butler, part of a traveling act called “Baughman and Butler.” Annie defeated Butler in a hillside contest above the city of Cincinnati in November 1875, but the man ten years her senior was smitten by this five foot tall teenage sharpshooter. Less than a year later the two were married and were also show business partners. They lived in Cincinnati for a while, and some believe Annie took her last name of Oakley from the subdivision of Cincinnati in which they lived—others believe the name comes from a man who paid for some badly needed train fare when Annie was a child.

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The years after their wedding saw Annie perfecting her shooting and showmanship skills with the Sells Brothers Circus. She was far from the rural world of her childhood, and was soon a veteran performer familiar with the world of trains, steamer trunks, and city hotels. While this life could be hard, Annie grew used to it, and audiences were captivated by the remarkable talents of this diminutive markswoman.

Oakley and Butler went on the road with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in 1886, beginning a legendary career that saw her stunning large audiences with her dazzling feats of marksmanship. A superb athlete gifted with excellent balance, lightning quickness, and virtually off-the-charts hand and eye coordination, she wowed audiences by shooting cigarettes and cigars out of Butler’s mouth, hitting dimes hurled into the air, and shooting objects behind her with the use of a mirror. She could shoot with either hand, nail target after target while riding a bike, and leap over a table, grab a rifle, and hit glass balls thrown into the air as she leaped the table. Chief Sitting Bull, who was part of the show for a while, called her “Watanya Cecilia,” which means “Little Sure Shot.”

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Oakley stayed with Buffalo Bill until suffering a bad injury in a train accident. Following her recovery, she played roles on stage and continued to demonstrate an even greater range of shooting prowess, setting shooting records into her sixties. She was also a philanthropist and advocate for women’s rights. She believed women should be able to handle firearms and defend themselves if necessary. In 1898 she offered President McKinley her services to raise a company of “50 lady sharpshooters” to aid the U.S. military if the country went to war with Spain.

Annie Oakley died on November 3, 1926 of pernicious anemia at the age of 66—almost the same age her father was when he died. Her husband Frank died just eighteen days later on November 21, 1926. They are buried in Brock Cemetery in Greenville, Ohio.

 

Patrick Kerin

 

Sources:

 

Wikipedia: Annie Oakley.

 

Annie Oakley of the Wild West—Walter Havighurst. (1954)—Scribner’s. Used 2003 Castle Books edition.

 

The Ohio Guide. WPA (1940). 1962 reprint.

 

Heroes of Ohio: 23 True Tales of Courage and Character. Rick Sowash, Rick Sowash Publishing Co. 2003.

Mary Lee Settle: Searching For The Roots of Freedom.

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Mary Lee Settle

Mary Lee Settle

The recent date of July 29 marks the birthday of distinguished West Virginia novelist Mary Lee Settle. Although she wrote numerous works of fiction and nonfiction, she is probably best known for her cycle of novels known as the “Beulah Quintet,” which trace the histories of several West Virginia families from their origins in the 1600s up through the mid twentieth century. They also explore the evolution of American democracy and American ideas of freedom. In addition, she created the PEN/Faulkner Award, a yearly award presented to an author based on the votes of fellow writers.

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Mary Lee Settle was born on July 29, 1918 in Charleston, West Virginia. Her father was a civil engineer working in the coal fields, and some of her childhood was spent in rural Kentucky. The family returned to West Virginia around 1930 after time in both Kentucky and Florida. She later attended Sweet Briar College in Virginia for two years, then left the school to become a model in New York. She married an Englishman, Rodney Wethersbee, and moved to England. During the war years she gave birth to a son, served in the women’s branch of the RAF, and wrote for the U.S. Office of War Information.

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During this time she became serious about her own writing and became friends with people in English literary and publishing circles. She divorced Wethersbee, married English writer Douglas Newton, and worked for a while as an editor at Harper’s Bazaar during a brief return to the U.S., but decided to focus more on her own work. She wrote six plays before turning to fiction. Her first novel to be published was actually her second– The Love Eaters (1954), followed by her first: Kiss of Kin (1955).

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She became interested in writing about early America, and during the late 1940s began researching the world of 17th century colonial America at the British Library, unexpectedly finding in England an embarrassment of riches relating to the history of early Virginia. Her first novel of the Beulah Quintet to be published (although not the first in terms of its fictional chronology) was O Beulah Land (1956), concerning settlement of what would become West Virginia. The other volumes of the Quintet are Know Nothing (1960), which concerns the Civil War; Prisons (1973) which is actually the first book in the quintet as it introduces the two 17th century men who are the ancestors of subsequent characters; Scapegoat (1980), dealing with one day in 1917 during a coal mine strike; and The Killing Ground (1982), set in the later 20th century. The Killing Ground is actually a revision of another novel Settle wrote and published in the early 1960s called Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday. She revised the novel to make it congruent with the earlier novels of the quintet. In addition to her literary artistry, Settle is widely respected for the historical authenticity of her work. She spent months immersed in old letters and documents to better understand how people in earlier times thought and talked. To gain an understanding of how labor activist Mother Jones spoke, Settle read aloud into a tape recorder hours of Jones’ testimony in a court case to absorb the rhythms of her speech.

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Mary Lee Settle divorced her second husband and returned to the U.S. in 1956, eventually teaching at Bard College in upstate New York and later at the University of Virginia. She lived in Turkey from 1968 to 1972—she actually did what some people promised they would do if Richard Nixon was elected President: leave the country. But the situation appears to have been more serious than a simple dislike of Nixon. In an interview with The Paris Review, Settle described being harassed for political and anti-war activity—constant hang-up phone calls at night, mysterious cars repeatedly pulling in and out of her driveway—and she was also heavily questioned by IRS officials before being allowed to leave for Turkey. It seems quite possible to me that she was probably very suspicious to authorities at the time given not only her politics, but also her time overseas and the fact she had served in a foreign military—even one that was an ally—during World War II. It will be interesting to see if a future biographer turns up an FBI COINTELPRO file on Mary Lee Settle.

Not a fan: Mary Lee Settle left the country after Richard Nixon became President, and returned just weeks after he resigned.

Not a fan: Mary Lee Settle left the country after Richard Nixon became President, and returned just weeks after he resigned.

She returned from Turkey not long after Nixon’s resignation. She wrote a novel about British and American expatriates in Turkey called Blood Ties that won the National Book Award in 1978. That same year she married her third husband, a writer and historian named William Tazewell. They were married for twenty years until his death in 1998.

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Mary Lee Settle’s other books beside the Quintet include novels with both southern and British settings and several nonfiction books for children. In 1966 she published a memoir of her RAF experience in World War II– All The Brave Promises: Memories of Aircraft Woman 2nd Class 2146391. She also wrote books of travel essays on Spain and Turkey. Her last novel was I, Roger Williams, a fictional autobiography of the theologian, religious freedom advocate, and founder of Rhode Island. For Mary Lee Settle, Roger Williams was a key figure in understanding the development of American democracy.

Roger Williams

Roger Williams

 

Mary Lee Settle died from lung cancer on September 25, 2005.

 

Patrick Kerin

 

Sources:

NY Times obituary: Anita Gates, September 29, 2005.

The Literature of the Appalachian South: George Brosi. Sixth printing, 1995.

Wikipedia: Mary Lee Settle.

The Paris Review: Spring 1990, Vol, 114. Interview by Kenny Crane.

VQR Online (Virginia Quarterly Review): “Mary Lee Settle: The Lioness In Winter.” Mariflo Stephens, Autumn 1996.